Under Discussion: Getting Them to Talk

FullSizeRender (1)A teacher asked me the other day, “How do you get them to talk?”

I had just seen the same kids who wouldn’t raise their hands and answer her questions about the bell work they had just completed come into the room talking like crazy at the start of the hour. I’d seen them turn in their seats and continue to talk to each other—until class started. They did have voices.

But of course, the questions about the bell work were posed by the teacher, the topic was academic, and too much was riding on raising their hands.

  • Some didn’t know the answer and didn’t want to look “dumb.”
  • Some had the answer but didn’t want to be branded as “smart.”
  • Some had an idea—but didn’t want to risk being wrong.
  • Some knew the answer but just weren’t saying. Lots of reasons why.
  • Some were shy and not yet comfortable in the class. It is still the start of the year.

I remember learning to break icy silences like this, so here is what I told the teacher. It’s what I learned over the years about getting the kids to talk.

To start with, some conditions promote participation and, eventually, real discussion, better than others.

The seating arrangements: When desks are in rows, the student answering the question speaks to one person only—the teacher.  If recitation—simple Q and A—is what you expect, rows are okay; but if the goal is dialogue among the students, sitting in rows discourages that.

Even setting up the room so that two banks of desks face each other or are at least on a diagonal—a herringbone design—can help. Now they’re not talking to the backs of heads.

Circles, of course, are wonderful, but a circle is difficult if there are many students, big desks, and a small room.  Plus, there’s all that space gone to waste in the middle.

For years, I arranged my room in a U—two of them, to be precise. One had 19 chairs and inside that U was another, with 11 chairs. (I taught the students how to quickly rearrange the desks in rows for tests. For that matter, I taught them, too, how to rearrange the desks into pods for group work.) The U shape allowed the students to see the faces of a good many of their peers, so when we moved beyond recitation to real discussion, they were more likely to address each other, not me. Which is what I wanted.

My dream-come-true happened in my last years in the classroom when my room had 6 tables that broke apart into single desks. The students had swivel chairs. (Yes, I had to stop a few “spinners” from distracting others—and making me dizzy just watching them!—but that was quickly and easily halted.) The tables were perfect for group work and because they broke apart, the students could easily set them up for tests—and put them back again when a test was over.

The teacher’s position: Sometimes you want to be the “sage on the stage,” standing above the students and posing questions to a seated audience. In that case, rows are traditional and can work. But for discussion, a subtle change in your position makes a big change in audience response. Try sitting among the students in an empty student desk. Or, if the conversation you are looking for is to be strictly among the kids, sit off to the side. If you sit down—not at your desk, but in a student desk—you’ve changed the climate dramatically.

When my desks were in that U-shaped configuration, I sat in a student desk at the top of the U—in the gap between the two ends.  I could see everyone, direct traffic, keep track of who was participating and who wasn’t, and even write things down (which is much harder to do when you’re standing).

Wait time: This is an old piece of advice, but still so important. You have to give the students a few seconds to think before they speak. Not only will they provide better answers—more reflective, more detailed—but you’ve signaled that you value reflection first and open mouth second. Every prospective teacher learns about “wait time” in preparation for teaching, but that wait time is easier said than done. As a culture, we are uncomfortable with pauses, distressed by silence. That partly explains the vocalized pauses teachers of speech and debate struggle to eliminate—those ums and ahs that unconsciously creep into our speech.

In his book, Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov suggests what he calls “Narrated Wait Time.” That is, when the room is silent and you are waiting for an answer, throw out a comment that will help the students monitor the time (“I’m waiting for 10 more seconds before I call on someone”) or even guide them down the right path (“Think of a character in another book we’ve read who has had this same kind of problem”). Then wait a few more seconds.

Related to this is another strategy: Let them take a minute to write down an answer so they feel prepared. Sometimes when students don’t respond it’s because they’re tongue-tied. Having a prepared response builds confidence.

Your questions:

Avoid yes/no questions. What else is left to say after the answer is given?

Be explicit about what you are looking for.

Explain the similarities between these two characters. (If you just say “How are these two characters alike?” the answers will be short. Requiring students to explain provokes a more detailed response.)

Why do Russians think Stalingrad, not D-Day, was the turning point in WWII? Explain their point of view. (This is a complex question. It requires students not only to know what happened at Stalingrad as well as on D-Day, but to compare and contrast the two events and step outside the comfort zone of the conventional American point of view.)

What evidence do we have that climate change is happening? (Notice that asking for evidence avoids nebulous and unsupported answers that begin with “I feel that…” or “I think that…”, demanding, instead, that students present pertinent facts, not unsubstantiated opinions.

Here’s a source for great questions: www.edutopia.org/blog/rethinking-whole-class-discussion-todd-finley

Your responses:

Just as you will expect the students to be courteous to each other, you need to be careful about your responses to them. “Can you tell me a little more about that” sounds better than “Is that all?”  “You’re on the right track. Can anyone else add to that?” is nicer, too.  You don’t want to accept wrong answers, but you have to be supportive of attempts—otherwise, students will shut down. Whoever volunteers to be humiliated?

Teach them how to respond: Consider posting sentence stems as reminders when you’re first getting started.

  • I agree with James, but I want to add this…
  • I don’t agree, James, because…
  • That’s an interesting (unusual/thoughtful/surprising/etc.) way to look at the situation, but here’s my take:
  • I’d like to add to what Sally said.
  • I didn’t understand it that way. What I got out of it was…

An excellent list of sentence stems—that teachers can use as well as students—appears on Te@chThought: http://www.teachthought.com/learning/sentence-stems-higher-level-conversation-classroom/

Collaboration helps:

Think/Pair/Share is another confidence-building strategy for discussion. You may have used this for reinforcing concepts, but it can also be used for developing ideas. Two people seated next to each other turn in their seats and for a brief amount of time, discuss the question and come up with an answer. Keep the time short—very short—or the talk will deteriorate into social conversation. And, be explicit about how they share—especially important if the students have never done this before. Model the exchange of ideas for them so they have the language of collaboration.

Group Share is essentially the same thing, but three or four people work together to come up with an answer. Usually the question is more complex, the time allotted is longer, and the discussion afterward is extended. Again, keep to a strict time limit, model the process, and instruct the students to choose a spokesperson who will deliver the consensus response. After each group has reported out, a fuller discussion starts spontaneously because the groups don’t always agree.

If all else fails, try this:

I’m by and large not a believer in extra credit, but many teachers, for good reasons, are. Many people award participation points—or expect students to earn them. Also for good reasons.

One year I came up with this strategy for a class who wouldn’t talk. We were reading Field of Dreams (This was before it became a movie). I took a great big sheet of white construction paper, used a water glass as a template, and drew around the glass to make circles on the paper. Using my amazing artistic skills, I turned each circle into a baseball, wrote the students’ names on the baseballs, and laminated the sheets.

When they entered the room, I’d hand them their baseballs. (The leftover baseballs told me who was absent: Presto! Attendance taken!) Then, as I explained on the first day, my expectation was that everyone would speak at least once a period. They had to raise their hands, I called on them, and as they spoke, I collected their cards.

This strategy really worked for me. I did get them talking because that extra point (In the beginning, I did count their contributions as extra credit) was a huge motivator. After a while, I dropped the extra credit, moved to participation points, and eventually got rid of all points—but by then we were done with the book, too. But, the students had opened up. The ice was broken and they were no longer so hesitant to speak.

This strategy is similar to the one elementary teachers frequently use: calling on a student whose name is on a Popsicle stick or drawing a name from a fishbowl. The difference is, with the baseball, the student has the choice of when to speak—a powerful bit of control for someone in high school.

Of course it wasn’t a perfect strategy. A student could use his card right away and then sit back and relax. A student who wanted to contribute more than once still could, but only when the others had all had a chance. But the baseball card strategy wasn’t a permanent solution anyway. It was a device to, so to speak, get the ball rolling.

How to get them to talk: The question is under discussion, and I’d be interested to know how you do it.


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